The vision of higher education in any country is to realise the human resource potential to its fullest with equity and inclusion. Are we on track? In his lecture at Anna University, Prof. Ved Prakash, Chairman, University Grants Commission, asked searching questions on the state of affairs plaguing the system, the challenges ahead and offered solutions.
“We can't afford to grow in isolation. If Chennai grows and the smaller cities do not grow, it will be a meaningless growth. The mission has to be to provide access and quality higher education to all those desiring it.”
As the size of the middle class is swelling, the demand for higher education is increasing fast. This should not lead to floating of all kinds of third rate institutions, he said, pointing out the contradiction in demand for skilled workforce to that of the large number of unemployed graduates in the country. “A college is not an industry like the one that manufactures nuts and bolts for profit,” he noted.
In the 1950s and '60s, the growth of institutions was 8.2 per cent and that of gross enrolment ratio 12.54 per cent. In the last decade (2000-10), the institutions grew at 9.3 per cent whereas the gross enrolment ratio was a sluggish 6.25 per cent.
“Unless the internal efficiency of the school system, especially secondary and higher secondary, is improved, there will not be enough students for higher education.” As the dropout rate in Class X and XII was high, university teachers would have to come up with pedagogies to make learning easy and enriching for secondary school students, he demanded.
In the 1960s, the Education Commission had recommended that six per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) be spent on education. Till this day, the country has not achieved it. This year, 3.57 per cent of GDP has been allotted for education, with a mere 0.57 per cent for higher education, said the UGC chairman, clearly emphasising the need to invest a lot more in higher education. The State governments should fund more on State universities and on institutes founded on philanthropy like the Indian Institutes of Science, Bengaluru.
There was a need to mobilise institutions to come forward and allow them to peer group review under National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Board of Accreditation (NBA).
“We have to widen access to higher education which is of paramount significance. We have to enhance diversity. If children grow in protected environments, strong personalities can't emerge. If you grow with boys and girls from diverse social backgrounds, you will be a better person.”
“We need to broaden curricular provisions and come out of the straight-jacketed system. We must make options available to study. We need to improve the quality of course curriculum. We need to forge linkages among institutions nationally and internationally.”
The focus has to be on six Es for higher education — Expansion, Equity, Excellence, Empowerment, Engagement and Ethics.
Ethics must be the foundation of the entire structure of higher education. If we are not teaching ethics, if we are not imbibing eternal values, we will not be able to succeed, Prof. Ved Prakash said.
“We must constantly reform through our commitment to achieve excellence in teaching, research, and engagement. This requires four things — national conviction, sustained political will, sustained resources and capacity development. Any programme will fall flat if they are not monitored by competent professionals.”
In the course of his address, Prof. Ved Prakash asked every institution to revisit its charter and ensure teachers and students engaged in scholarly discussions on a range of wider issues of historical and contemporary significance apart from study. “This is how you produce outstanding scholars and not merely churn out tongue-tied children.”
Students of higher learning should also be sensitive to those unfortunate 75 per cent of population living in villages under hard conditions, Prof. Ved Prakash insisted. Concluding his talk by revealing startling statistics on the increasing number of families under the Below Poverty Line in the country from various reports, he had this one question. “Is it not our responsibility to come up with solutions to eliminate poverty?”